US Electricity Flows, 2017

Tread Lightly on the Grid

July 27, 2018

Every year, the DOE releases information about where electricity gets used in the US.  And for 2017, there’s very good news: we don’t need fossil fuel on the grid!

Ok, well, yes, technically we do still need them on the grid. But let’s look at the numbers to explain.  The big energy source players:

  1. Coal: 12.62 quadrillion BTUs
  2. Natural gas: 9.76 quadrillion BTUs
  3. Nuclear: 8.42 quadrillion BTUs
  4. Renewables: 6.42 quadrillion BTUs

In total, fossil fuels (including oil and other gasses) count for 22.68 quadrillion BTUs of energy.

And what are the end uses?  14.46 quadrillion BTUs are actually used by people and things – buildings, electronics, industry, etc.  23.25 quadrillion BTUs are completely wasted as “conversion losses.”  That’s energy that never makes it to anyone’s circuit breaker.  And it’s more than fossil fuels contribute to the national electrical grid.

What does that mean?  If we had a perfectly efficient electrical distribution system, we could power all the things without fossil fuels!

Bad news, though: we do not, in fact, have a perfectly efficient grid.  We don’t even have a grid that can really be considered efficient in any sense: losses consume 61.6% of the energy generated.  But this represents an engineering and design problem, one that we can (theoretically) be solving.

In parallel with researchers who are working toward systemic changes to the grid, there are strategies that building owners can consider to accelerate the process and minimize their own impact.  On-site renewables are obviously a smart choice, one that also minimizes transmission losses by not moving the power very far.  Fuel cells and battery storage can make sense for certain projects not only to ensure continual access to electricity, but also to load balance and minimize strain on the grid.  And several of our projects have been able to tap into the microgrid at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, which is a testbed of efficient and reliable distribution technologies.

It’s tempting to let graphs like this make us feel resigned: if inefficiencies are such a huge chunk of energy use, how do our LED lights possibly matter?  In reality, those inefficiencies mean that our “small” decisions have even more impact.  Whenever we consume energy, even more is wasted as a result.  So the current inefficiencies only amplify the value of having high performance, highly efficient buildings that can generate their own energy.

Re:Vision’s experience in Passive House, net-zero buildings, and general good design can help you make an impact.  A big one.  Reach out if we can help your next building or home tread more lightly on the grid.

Graphic and information for this post sourced from the Department of Energy.